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The Suncor mine facility along the Athabasca river as seen from a helicopter tour of the oil sands near Fort McMurray, Alta., Tuesday, July 10, 2012.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Alberta and China have signed what they term a landmark deal to increase trade ties and collaboration between the two jurisdictions.

Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes says the framework on sustainable energy development, while non-binding, opens doors to get Alberta's oil and gas to the rapidly expanding economy of the Asian nation.

"It's a direct line into the strategic thinking of the policy makers in the whole of China," Hughes said Friday from Beijing, in a conference call with reporters.

He called China "the single most important market that Alberta will have for the next 50 years."

Hughes said the deal's importance was highlighted by the fact it was signed in the Great Hall of the People in the presence of the Chinese president and Canadian Governor General David Johnston.

The agreement is said to be the first of its kind between China and a Canadian province.

Hughes has been in Asia meeting with officials in South Korea, China and Japan to work on expanding markets for Alberta resources.

He said the deal reinforces the importance of getting direct access for Alberta oil to coastal ports in North America for shipment to Asia.

Premier Alison Redford has been lobbying and negotiating to get pipelines built to ports in B.C. and Atlantic Canada, and has been urging U.S. President Barack Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. That line would take oil from Alberta to refineries and ports on the Gulf Coast in Texas.

Keystone has met with fierce opposition from environmental activists. Some fear the repercussions of oil spills while others argue, given the oilsands' larger carbon footprint, it's better to stick with conventional oil while developing alternative sources of fuel.

Hughes said he is hearing loud and clear that Asia is desperate to buy what Alberta has to sell.

"There is a real sense of urgency amongst our customers in Asia to get access to be able to buy energy resources from Canada," he said.

"There is a window here, and Canada's quality of life is heavily dependent upon us being successful at developing our resources and getting our resources to our customers.

"It's absolutely critical that we get access to the coast."

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